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IN THEIR OWN WORDS: Academic Mobbing: Is Gender a Factor?

"You know what stops mobbings? Somebody saying, 'Cut it out. Enough of this.'"


Dr. Sandra Stokes

By Sandra M. Stokes, PhD, professor of education and women’s studies, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and Sheri R. Klein, PhD, professor of art education, University of Wisconsin-Stout

The topic of mobbing has recently received media attention, with some experts believing that instances of mobbing on higher education campuses are increasing.

Researchers claim mobbing affects only about 2% to 5% of all workers, but the highest number of mobbing incidents takes place in higher education. Women faculty are the majority of the targets.

What exactly is mobbing? According to authors Noa Davenport, Ruth Schwartz and Gail Elliott in Mobbing: Emotional Abuse in the American Workplace (Civil Society Publishing, 2004):

Mobbing is an emotional assault. It begins when an individual becomes the target of disrespectful and harmful behavior. Through innuendo, rumors, and public discrediting, a hostile environment is created in which one individual gathers others to willingly, or unwillingly, participate in continuous malevolent actions to force a person out of the workplace.

These actions escalate into abusive and terrorizing behavior. The victim feels increasingly helpless when the organization does not put a stop to the behavior or may even plan or condone it.

As a result, the individual experiences increasing distress, illness, and social misery…Resignation, termination, or early retirement—the negotiated voluntary or involuntary expulsion from the workplace—follows. For the victim, death—through illness or suicide—may be the final chapter in the mobbing story.

Financial consequences also can be a part of the mobbing; personnel reviews often are intentionally used to justify little to no salary increases or lack of retention.

How to recognize mobbing

Mobbing can be distinguished from the ordinary storm und drang that sometimes characterizes life in a university. A major characteristic is that the attack made on the target is not made on the actions or words of the faculty member but instead on the faculty member herself.

Other characteristics:

  • The target has a record of success.
  • The mobbers make up the rules as they go along and do not follow the accepted university due process procedures.
  • The timing usually favors the mobbers, such as choosing to attack after the faculty member has had a serious medical procedure.
  • The mobbers protest vehemently against any external review of their actions.
  • The mobbers attempt to carry out their attacks in complete secrecy, using such tactics as anonymous hate mail left in the target’s mailbox.
  • The charges against the target are for relatively minor instances, such as alleging that a faculty member has said certain things that the mobbers find objectionable.

--There is a unanimity of negative opinion about the target. 

--The target is selected first and then the charges are brought.

--The mobbers use “impassioned rhetoric” in attacking the target.

--The mobbers spread rumors and gossip about the target.

Mobbing behaviors

Is it your imagination or is it mobbing?

While behaviors vary in scope and intensity, the most common include:

  • not speaking to the target (e.g., when the department is assembled for a meeting, everyone is chatting except to the target; when it is time to be seated, everyone moves away from the target)
  • downgrading work done by the target while praising work done by everyone else (e.g., giving the target a satisfactory rating for producing a book while giving exceptional ratings to everyone else for little to no productivity)
  • filing complaints through faculty grievances based on “lack of collegiality”
  • assigning everyone in a department to teach summer courses except the target
  • a department chair taking away a course from the target when students complain of too much work instead of backing up the target
  • not passing a major addition to a department’s curriculum because it was created by the target
  • not including the target in any departmental planning
  • conveying untrue allegations against the target to one and all
  • letting untenured faculty as well as academic staff know that they should not interact with the target

Gender in mobbing

Research indicates that about 57% of those who are mobbed are women. According to the AFT Wisconsin Local 3535’s Academic Freedom and Tenure Committee, women are targets in 75-80% of all cases of academic mobbing on campuses across the University of Wisconsin system.

Cases at the Wisconsin union include many instances of mobbing against faculty, particularly women faculty, who are outspoken about unethical and unjust situations. These faculty are quite competent and successful, and they be-come targets of mobbers who are threatened by their competence and professional success.

Other factors that determine who gets mobbed:

  • Ethical and just people with high standards 
  • Independent, skilled and bright people with integrity
  • Cooperative, “nice” people
  • Marginalized or vulnerable people, such as those with a disability, those from another country or those who are somehow unlike everyone else.

Sadly, the perpetrators of mobbing are also often disproportionately women. In fact, according to researcher Linda Shallcross, the technique of mobbing—in which the attacks on a target are sneaky and collective—greatly appeals to women.

Administrators’ role

One characteristic in higher education that especially encourages mobbing is the tendency of administrators and/or campus leaders to ignore or tolerate the mistreatment of the target. Although mobbing can be instigated by a campus leader or administrator, it is always led by someone who has power over a group.

Administrators who are not directly responsible for the mobbing often fail to respond to it, which allows the mobbing to continue until the target gives up and leaves, develops life-threatening medical conditions (most commonly cardiac complications) or commits suicide—as do some 12% of all academics who are mobbed.

Administrators and campus leaders need to become more aware of this phenomenon on their campuses and take action to end it. A faculty member who has conducted years of research on this topic, Kenneth Westhues of the University of Waterloo, has said: “You know what stops mobbings? Somebody saying, ‘Cut it out. Enough of this.’”

What can be done?

If you suspect that you are being mobbed, document everything that is said and done to make you feel this way. Get help from external sources who are knowledgeable about academic mobbing. Find an ally (a colleague, mentor or supervisor) whom you can trust to be a reality check and source of support.

Outside observers can look at situations where attacks are occurring. Are the attacks on the person or on her actions/words? Don’t stand by idly. Make campus leaders aware of the attacks and insist that they take action against the mobbers. Work for anti-mobbing policies on your campus. Don’t allow any one person or group to circumvent normal university due process procedures.

Those who do nothing and tolerate the attacks are jeopardizing not only their own careers, but also those of other smart, effective campus contributors who are likely to be the next targets.

Doing nothing enables the mobbers, so that academic mobbing will continue. It won’t stop until colleagues and administrators say “NO” to mobbing. The consequences of inaction are enormous for everyone, but the real losers in the academy are the students.

Ed note: Sandra Stokes presented a paper on this topic at the University of Wisconsin Women’s Studies Consortium conference in Green Bay in April, while Sheri Klein prepared a talk on this topic for Women’s History Month. They are compiling case studies and welcome readers’ stories about academic mobbing, particularly women. All stories will be kept confidential unless the writer specifies otherwise. Contact Sandra Stokes at stokess@uwgb.edu  or 920.465.2406 or Sheri Klein at kleins@uwstout.edu  or 715.232.2196.

Find more info on mobbing at these Web sites:  

http://arts.uwaterloo.ca/~kwesthue/mobbing.htm 

http://bullyinginstitute.org/

http://bulliedacademics.blogspot.com/academicmobbing.blogspot.com/

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